Arthur Seldon

Arthur Seldon, intellectual architect of both Blairism and Thatcherism, died on October 11th, aged 89.

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers...are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." So wrote John Maynard Keynes, the economic architect of the welfare state and the Great Society, and he should have known. But it was Arthur Seldon who took Keynes's words to heart, and paid him back in kind. Mr Seldon marshalled the academic scribblers of his own era to lead the intellectual fight-back against Keynesianism, distilling from free-market economic doctrines ideas that fuelled both the frenzy of Thatcherism and its afterburn, Tony Blair.

The perch from which Mr Seldon directed this campaign was a think-tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which he joined as Editorial Director in 1958. The IEA was founded in l955 by an old-Etonian
chicken farmer called Antony Fisher. Concerned by the waves of nationalisations and economic controls in post-war Britain, Mr Fisher sought advice from the one intellectual who was resisting the tide, an Austrian-born economist, Friedrich von Hayek. Hayek urged him to emulate the Fabian Society, the first socialist think-tank, which had done so much to spread the doctrine of state intervention at the beginning of the century. He should do so, however, from the opposite, free-market point of view.

Fisher's first recruit, as director of the new think-tank, was Ralph Harris, and his second was Mr Seldon. Together they made a formidable team, in place until the mid-1980s, by which time they had moved
from the outer fringes to the mainstream of British politics. Mr Harris was the IEA's public face; Mr Seldon, the more thoughtful of the two, was its resident intellectual. A pronounced stutter meant that he seldom spoke in public. But as Editorial Director he oversaw the institute's highly influential publishing programme.

The IEA's pamphlets, modelled on Fabian ones, brought to the lay reader the ideas of all the leading free-market economists and thinkers of the day. Many of those subjects-reform of the trade unions, public versus private welfare, the virtues of floating exchange rates-became the main preoccupations of the Thatcherites in the 1980s. Mr Seldon's target audience was what he called the "second-hand dealers in ideas": journalists,teachers,academics, businessmen and city analysts who create the intellectual environment in which politicians have to work. Mr Seldon's golden rule was that his authors should think of their subjects regardless of the political context. They were to expound the verities of economic liberalism and let the politicians come to them, rather than the other way round. It took quite a long time for this to happen; but eventually, from the mid-1960s, the politicians began to arrive. As Britain's economic problems piled up, a trickle of radical Conservatives such as Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe started getting involved in the IEA's work, looking for free-market alternatives.

Mr Seldon, however, kept away from active politics. Having seen war service in Africa and Italy, he picked a military metaphor: the IEA would be the long-range artillery lobbing shells into enemy lines, "but it would never be the infantry, engaged in the short-term face-to-face grappling." In the mid-1970s, as the Thatcherite revolution got under way, other think-tanks, such as the Centre for Policy Studies, were founded to do the grappling.

A classic liberal

In many ways Mr Seldon was a quintessential Thatcherite, if never a Conservative. He was born in the East End of London, to Russian-Jewish immigrants, but lost both parents in the 'flu epidemic of 1918, when he was three. Adopted by a cobbler, learning to repair shoes himself, he became a natural and lifelong believer in self-help. He won a state scholarship to the London School of Economics, where
he was inspired to his life's work by Hayek, who was one of his tutors.

Rather than a Tory, Mr Seldon was essentially a classic liberal. Much of his early life was devoted to trying to revive the Gladstonian roots of the Liberal Party, even as it succumbed to the influence of Keynes and others. He always regretted that it was the Conservative Party that took up the IEA's agenda, not the Liberal
Party, where his free-market ideas really belonged. This marked him out from most Thatcherites, who, much as they adored economic freedom, often had a Tory dislike of individual liberty in other spheres.

His distance from party politics made him a natural source of wisdom when the next generation of intellectuals came along, in the early 1990s, to try to end the hegemony of Conservatism. Copying Mr
Seldon's formula, they started think-tanks such as Demos to create a new intellectual climate that would eventually contribute to Mr Blair's landslide election victory in 1997. Not only had Mr Seldon changed the
way that politicians went about their business, establishing the "battle of ideas" as equal in importance to party politics. Through his tireless campaigning he had also ensured that New Labour would only be taken seriously if it became, essentially, a free-market party as well.